Monday, August 10, 2009

The U Word (2002)

FROM THE ARCHIVES, AUG. 10 - This originally ran in Punk Planet 46 under the title "Food On Y'all"; I think I'd been listening to an ODB song where he yells that and it struck me as funny...


I am deeply conflicted to report that a 20-page fanzine of Henry Rollins poetry has just sold for $205 in an online auction. I bought the thing for a dollar in 1990, which would make my rate of return slightly over 20,000%. If I reinvest the cash wisely and pull the same trick again, I can make $40,000. Do it once more and I get a cool $8,000,000. This is what all the big guys huff and puff over - rate of return. When Bill Gates & Donald Trump get together to eat in one of their fancy restaurants, they discuss how to maximize their rate of return. When word of this column leaks out, their next conversation will doubtless center around my stupendous feat.

The deep conflict arises from the U Word. "Usury", once confined to the lending of money at high interest rates, has come to mean a more general, amoral brand of profiteering. The Bible weighs in quite heavily against usury. Try Ezekiel 18:13:

If he has exacted usury or taken increase -- Shall he then live? He shall not live! If he has done any of these abominations, He shall surely die; His blood shall be upon him.

Yikes! If my little online auction isn’t a clear-cut case of “taking increase” than I don’t know what is. Despite not wanting my blood upon myself, however, I’m not so disturbed by my own apparent greed. I am disturbed at how thoroughly my passion over the issue has evaporated. This kind of stuff used to vex me into a mad froth not ten years ago. There was a time in my life when inflated record prices were a real and palpable evil, the shallow end of a continuum that included all culture related markups, crookedness, financial cynicism, hypocrisy, graft, racism, war, genocide, and exploding planets. It's hard, writing from the comfort of the 21st century, to decipher my thought processes. But I do remember that I wasn't alone. Venus records in New York sustained a low-level drubbing from myself and others for years over this issue, the outrage of the righteous over the perception of unfair prices. Friends assaulted their door with condiments. Stock was vandalized. Lip was given. Serious stuff.

The problem with the commandment against usury is that it challenges its detractors to formulate a fair price. It’s a slippery proposition. The owner of Venus once smartly posed this very challenge to me and I sidestepped with some teenagerishly amateur snide comment. He saw right to the meaty core of a problem that exists yet today - the ever shifting boundaries of fair price. Like; I guess $205 plus shipping and handling is kind of harsh for a slim tome of pretentious poetry. When I close my eyes, concentrate, and ask myself what seems like a reasonable amount, a hazy “$4?” emerges (this was my asking price for the zine in question). But that's still a four hundred percent profit. I would certainly hate to see, for example, the $125 used refrigerator I & my girlfriend bought in 1999 purchased on eBay for $500.

And there's an unspoken paradox here, so obvious that I have to wonder how it escaped me during my uppity anti-usury-guy days. If poseurs are the problem (and even at this late date I remain convinced that poseurs, in various stripes and guises, are THE problem) and if only a poseur would pay $46 for a Peter And The Test Tube Babies record… well, isn’t this an elegant solution to both problems? There seems something beautifully Darwinian about the whole arrangement. Who am I to mess with Darwin? Yet... there are even flaws in this approach. The implication of my own superiority over the buyer, at the very least that I “got over” on someone, is kinda uncomfortable. I'm not sure that there was any getting over involved in this latest transaction. Perhaps the Rollins zine was purchased for a noble cause. I'll never know. Statistically, it’s not impossible that the buyer paid the whopping winning bid only to rush the item on a doily to a dying grandparent, some bittersweet last request. Or it could have been purchased as a birthday present. Who am I to mess with someone’s birthday? Most plausible still, the buyer could be a prudent investor. A twenty thousand per cent return over eleven years is the holy grail to even the wealthiest of investors. The Sultan Of Brunei would bark like a duck for those numbers. The same logic that makes me a smart guy for pulling off the sale potentially makes the buyer exponentially smarter than me. Damn.

At least I didn’t bootleg the thing! And don't think I didn't think about it! I did! A few staple pops, some quick moves at the copy shop and I've got a steady extra income. I strongly doubt any buyers of my hypothetical cloned zines would be running a fiber analysis on the paper or grades of Xerox toner. Victimless crime! And if Ezekiel already dooms me to an eternity in Hell for the initial sale, why not bootleg it? Well.... because I already sent it off, that's why. Oops.


1. For all the complaints I’ve read about the new Hotmail design, I have yet to hear anyone else gripe about the new wave of audacious spam that started the moment their site was updated. I get at least two commercial messages a day now with headers like, RE: We charged it to your Visa or RE: Your account is overdrawn or RE: I want to suck your dick. Is this the next wave of selling? The funny thing about online marketing - people worry about privacy loss, pernicious techno-sophistication and invisible cookies, when what they SHOULD be worried about is the opposite; the reversion to crude intrusion, the dangerous desperation of modern advertising. It's the big secret of every business magazine. The number one commodity for all modern markets is consumer attention. Advertising is a victim of its own success. The same technology that allows a seller to blast a million potential customers with unwanted ads forces that same seller to compete against a million other sellers, all in competition for dwindling fractions of the public's time.

The future of advertising may not be the giant video geishas from Blade Runner. My bet is that we're going to see far more of the tactics perfected by the street freaks during my five years in Richmond, VA. I once had a street dude run in front of my moving car, arms flailing, screaming for me to stop. I played the good Samaritan up until he ran up to the window and asked if I had any cigarettes. And who could forget the door-to-door serial borrowers? I recall several confident chaps ringing the bell and asking to borrow my bike for half an hour. One guy lost his composure after I refused, paused for an angry minute to reflect, and then pointed next door, blurting, "Well, your neighbors... how they livin'??!" Some ad exec is going to catch on to these tactics sooner or later. I can easily visualize this future - Pepsi sponsored home invasions, Virgin Megastore muggings, rocks stenciled with the Verizon logo hurled through windows...

2. I should note that I'm not reinvesting a dime of my easily gotten $205. It all goes for some alimonyish payments due to a large East Canadian printing firm. These good souls printed many a CD and LP cover for me, providing me with this column's link to this issue's graphics design theme.

3. The Rate Of Return conundrum creeps into the creative spheres. Take these columns, for which we are all eventually paid our $40. If I need eight agonizing hours to churn one out then I’m not making but five dollars an hour, fry cook territory. But if I dash this thing out in a half hour, I’ve suddenly lurched into the $80 an hour range. Not bad. A fifteen-minute column gets me into the lawyerly tax bracket of $160 an hour. And a two minute sprint – 90 seconds smashing on the “j” and “k” keys as fast as possible followed by 30 seconds of random space bar insertions – gets me into the $1200 an hour range. Could such a gibberish-fest make it past the editors? Only time will tell ...